The Difficulty of Producing Comedy

In this paper NIKOLAI AKIMOV, director of the Leningrad Comedy Theater, explores the sensitive question of how far one may go in the writing of satire. He makes a plea for creative latitude for the comedy writer comparable to what the serious dramatist enjoys.


IN OUR comedy theater there are tremendous possibilities for the propagation of Soviet ideas. In contrast to other kinds of plays, comedy possesses the quality of inevitability. A wise and wellwritten comedy, infecting the spectators with laughter, urges on the audience the point of view of the author, even if individual spectators at first do not agree with it. And this joyous medium could become a militant weapon for the assertion of our views even beyond our borders.

The path traversed by a Soviet comedy, from the writing table of the dramatist to the footlights, is sometimes very rocky, and in the process of production, the play goes through a gradual limiting of scope, a smoothing of the corners, a watering down of any kind of sharp generalization. In the beginning, for example, an author may be persuaded to make a minister a deputy minister, then the chief of a department, then the chief of a section, after which the criticism is made: “What are you talking about? This is trivial!”

If it were authoritatively explained to us that in the next fifty years comedy would not be necessary to us, I would be completely set at ease. One could occupy oneself with other matters. But if we are told that comedy is absolutely necessary, then our duty as professionals is to ask: Under what conditions can it occupy a worthy place in Soviet dramaturgy?

Comedy is a mass medium, and it takes the total impact of hundreds of comedies to influence society. One comedy, like one roe put under the microscope and examined, in isolation will always seem atypical. The basic condition for the development of comedies is that there should be many. A few will be very good and will become classics; a significant number will be of average quality; and a considerable number will be bad. Concerning the harmful, ideologically vicious, pathological comedies, the door to them — as with everything vicious — must be tightly shut.

Points of view on any art form are in general true or untrue. And that there exist among us untrue points of view is not so terrible, if only they are detected in the course of time and corrected. Among us, for example, there still exists, inherited from the past, the division of different mediums into respectable and not respectable.

There are sublime mediums which can arouse admiration or respect. Serious drama is a respected medium. One can like or dislike comedy, but one does not have to respect it. Such an attitude extends also to personal representatives of the medium. Even a little-known artist of the Moscow Art Theater is more respected than, for example, the comic actor Raikin. People love Raikin, but since he is merely funny, why should they respect him? He is placed in the category of variety theater, and this is entirely unrespectable.

The first thing that is said now about any new comedy is, “It has a petty theme.” Under the concept of petty themes, in recent times, certain people include a great deal: love, the building of a family, and any number of domestic and ethical questions. More than once I have heard a critic say, “So what? You showed a rascal careerist. Is that worth the attention of a Soviet audience?” Rascals must be exposed on the stage, though they themselves would very much like to be left in peace.

Misunderstanding of the laws of the medium is another important factor in the stifling of comedy. If a comedy situation or a comic hero is evaluated from the point of view of the laws of serious drama, you receive irrefutable proof of the stupidity of the authors of the comedy. Try to take Chaplin out of the atmosphere of his comic scenes and put him into Anna Karenina, or put Gogol’s Yaichnitsa into Notes from the House of the Dead, or Skapen into Phedre.

Some critics knock a comedy off its feet by simply retelling its content in abbreviated form. Such a blow could not be survived even by Woe from Wit: A young man came to Moscow; the girl he loved loved another; the man took offense and left. A stupid story about which there is nothing to tell, a “petty theme.” But it seems that Woe from Wit is a great work of art.

Not long ago, in the newspaper Literature and Life, Fyodor Panferov precisely by this means retold The Story of a Young Married Couple by Eugene Shwarts, which did not in the least convince me that the education of our youth and the raising of a family are petty themes.

For a true judgment of comedy, one must always check one’s suppositions with the reactions ol the audience. The most experienced dramatist or director must guess and hope that a comedy is funny. But to know if it is really so can be done only through communication with the spectator. The sensation of physical illness we check with a thermometer. However, one must decide beforehand whether to believe the thermometer or not. And we often believe it only it its evidence suits us.

A strict critic may change his attitude toward the Soviet audience depending on whether its reaction coincides with his views. If the audience does not accept a comedy which the critic does not like, then he writes: “Our adult Soviet spectators evaluated on its merits the sorry attempts ot the author to make them laugh with empty. . .

But if, to the dissatisfaction of the critic, the audience likes the comedy, then all the spectators of the theater are immediately transformed into a “backward part of the Philistine public, whose laughter. . . .” Is it not time for us to understand that the forty-year probation of Soviet artistic culture obliges us to make respectful evaluations and to draw sound conclusions from these evaluations?

It seems to me that our theaters take little advantage of such interesting means of communication with audiences as the spectators’ conference. When the Leningrad Comedy Theater played The Story of a Toung Married Couple by Shwarts, it had two spectator conferences. The judgment ol the audience interested us very much. Both conferences were lively, and we received lull support for the play from the spectators. The workers of the Kirov factory were especially outspoken. These were by no means abstract aesthetic discussions about the play, such as we are used to hearing from the critics; no, the theme ot the play — the building of a young family — touched the spectators vitally, especially the women, who told of personal family matters and their own difficulties and doubts. One young woman worker of the factory spoke with excitement about how she had been unfair to her husband and now would approach this problem in a new way. To see the palpable influence of a show on a spectator who comes to practical conclusions about his own life because of it, who listens to the dramatist as he would to a good and wise counselor — this is a great and useful lesson for the theater and the dramatist.

FOR the creation of good comedy, many years of effort are needed. Theaters which have dedicated themselves to this medium have learned a great deal from their own and others’ mistakes and from the reactions of millions of those who have seen the plays. As experience shows, one man alone can destroy a good comedy; one person can undermine the effect of the comedy if he is determined to do so. Such a free sharpshooter usually works at his own risk.

If someone succeeded in persuading us that a batch of canned goods sent to town was spoiled, and after its destruction it was explained that the rumor about the spoilage was the work of a sick imagination, then probably the person who spread the false information would be held responsible for the destruction. In our business, this is not so. If one “Status Seeker” succeeds in attaining the banning of a comedy as harmful and insidious, and later it is explained that it was useful and harmless, then no one answers for the damage.

A good example of this is the story of the comedy The Cottage by Valentin Kataev. In 1941, Kataev wrote a joyful and wise comedy about the inhabitants of the small Soviet town of Konsk, about their love for their city, about their struggle for its prosperity. He told about them through the aid of a plot complicated by gay misunderstandings. The comedy was accepted and rehearsed in Moscow in the Vakhtangov Theater and in Leningrad in the Comedy Theater. Rehearsals were nearing the end; the building of the sets was finished. Many theaters outside these two cities also accepted the play.

One unlucky day the directors of all theaters working on The Cottage were called to the telephone. A composed but inflexible voice from Moscow, from the Committee on the Arts, suggested the immediate cessation of work on the play. No explanation was made, and we were given to understand that it was impossible to explain by telephone. But it was not explained afterward, even in personal talks.

It must be kept in mind that the acceptance of a play in any theater is preceded first by reading to the troupe and then by discussion between the management and the directors and Party and professional organizations. No play accepted for presentation can bypass this procedure, and The Cottage was read by several hundreds of workers of Soviet culture who were concerned about their theater. The play was approved by the Main Repertory Committee and by the Committee on the Arts. And among none of the hundreds of these responsible people did the comedy evoke any suspicion; no one saw in it any lampoon or any hidden barbs.

The invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, naturally forced everyone quickly to forget about this petty event on the theatrical front. Sixteen years passed. The Moscow Theater of Satire presented The Cottage under a new title, This Happened in Konsk.

But comedy, except for the very top plays which become classics, is a fleeting medium, a rapidly spoiling commodity, and, of course, The Cottage sounds today not at all as it would have sounded sixteen years ago. Many domestic circumstances are rendered obsolete by the passage of time. But the acceptance now of the removed comedy does not make up for the damage which it suffered.

“WHY is all this possible? How can we fight this unhealthy situation? There exists only one true, not simple means: to seek to get everyone — dramatists, theaters, critics, and even audiences — to agree on the aims of comedy and on certain basic conditions for the development of Soviet comic mediums:

1.If, in a play, everything is normal; if good, correct people are acting; if events do not depart from well-accepted norms and nothing throws the heroes off balance, then there simply is no comedy. Yet most of the suggestions offered the dramatist are directed toward getting him to come closer to the norm and to move further away from the comedy medium.

2. We often confuse typical phenomena of life, worthy of being portrayed in comedy, with the construction of a comedy subject which must not and cannot be a reflection of the usual events of life. For heroes of a comedy to be able to manifest their typical characteristics, they must be set in unusual circumstances. Then you can get a comedy. The best tradition of Russian classics confirms this theory.

Yet how often you hear our comedy writers reproached: “This is just a special case; this is not at all a typical event.” I think that our writers hear this every time they succeed in thinking up a good comedy subject.

In articles and reviews devoted to comedies, one often reads the biting criticism, “an invented subject,” although no doubt the authors have thought of their subjects as an indispensable and very important element of comedy. A good comedy writer can find themes in his observations of life and in his images of people. But there is a tremendous difference between this part of his creative process and the construction of a comic subject, well-knit, clear, unexpected, which fuses into final form all the material that the writer has collected.

We don’t need invented subjects; but talented, thought-over, inventively constructed ones are absolutely necessary for any good comedy.

3. At a certain point, the amusing in a comedy is transferred to the position of contraband. This is helped no little by stock critical epithets of an insulting character: “schematic,” “he seeks to get a laugh,” “for the sake of a laugh,” “naked laugh,” “belly laugh.”

No one will dispute the facts that laughs are different and that a flat joke irritates no less than a stupid serious statement. However, if one were to compile statistics of our periodical press and theatrical reviews and compare how often laughter is described in scornful terms with how seldom the humor and wit of an author are praised, the ratio would probably turn out to be a hundred to one. If critics praise a comedy, it is for depth of thought or the pathos of the situation, almost never for humor.

But if you think about it, the desire of the comedy writer to get a laugh is no more harmful than the effort of a baker to feed, a doctor to heal, or a builder to build.

Listen to any conversation of the author of, a comedy, whether in the theater, in the culture office, in the editorial office, or in a debate. Ideas are discussed — characters, conceptions, roles, excisions, long passages, additions — but the talk never concerns laughter. It is somehow taken for granted that laughter is necessary to the dramatist alone. And a comedy writer often has to bring humor to the stage by stealth and shamefacedly, and only when he sees the reaction of the audience can he convince himself that there was nothing to be ashamed of in his play and that humor is also necessary to the spectator of a comedy.

4. Only high mastery of comedy can secure the manifestation of a friendly smile in the hall. Moreover, even in this realm there exist mistaken views. Different types of art depend on different techniques. Without knowing musical technique, the person gifted with native talent can compose a song for one voice, but it takes special education before one can write a symphony.

Of all literary mediums, perhaps comedy is the most complicated with respect to technique, and yet we pay no attention to this question. In a great number of the comedies by young authors which I have read recently, an interesting idea collapses because of technical unpreparedness, inability to build, to carry a work to completion. But where can we send a gifted and inquisitive beginning comedy writer who wants to gain the necessary knowledge, to read the necessary books, to know the theory of comedy? What, besides classic examples, can he study?

We have not printed one work on this theme. Books about Soviet comedy have set themselves completely different tasks, and they are of little help to the young author who might want to understand the basic laws of construction of a comedy in our time. One must remember that each epoch, even each small bit of time, has its character, its mode of life, its types, its inimitable specifics. No theatrical medium is adapted to fix the character of an epoch so completely as comedy.

The Soviet people love, value, and subtly understand humor. Besides, they are inclined to examine each question optimistically. They want to see gay and wise comedies, profound ones for reflection and joyous ones for recreation; and those of us who work in the theater are obliged to respond to these demands.

I am sure that we shall find the personnel, that we have not stopped producing new talent. It is only necessary to create the atmosphere in which these talents competing with one another can flourish. There will be disruptions and failures, but we must be patient in order to achieve the greatest success, the creation of a new Soviet comedy.